Sorry for blog silence this week: some difficult and painful family news to deal with. However, I’ve managed to ready tomorrow morning’s sermon for publication. It’s based on the Lectionary Gospel reading, and there’s a big Tom Wright influence to my interpretation. For me, he makes huge sense of a difficult passage.
If we’re not careful, reading a passage like this can make us complacent. We are so used to reading these accounts of ‘wars and rumours of wars … but the end is still to come’ (verse 7) that we assume this is one of those texts about the end of the world, and so we get smug about those Christians who foolishly predict when the end is coming. We sit back saying, “How silly,” and don’t allow the text to have any force with us.
But what if our interpretation is wrong? What if Mark 13 isn’t fundamentally about the end of the world and the Second Coming? Let me make a case that it’s about something else. And while that ‘something else’ doesn’t at first seem to affect us, actually it does. Allow me to explain.
How does the passage start? It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples admiring the Jerusalem Temple.
‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (Verse 1)
It’s all about the Temple. Jesus answers the comment in those terms. He prophesies the destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and it is about this that Peter, James, John and Andrew ask him for signs that it is about to happen (verses 3-4). I know some will point to later in this chapter (beyond today’s reading) where Jesus quotes Daniel about ‘the son of man coming in glory’ but that is not a prophecy about the Son of Man coming to earth, but coming to God. It prophesies Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection, his ascension and the fulfilment of these prophecies.
Essentially, Jesus tells his closest disciples not to be too impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. It was thought at the time to be the most beautiful of all ancient buildings, and so on a human level you can understand how impressed they are. Further, as good Jews going up for a festival, you can expect them to be favourably disposed towards it. And if they didn’t see it all that often, there here are devoutly religious men who are blown away by an act of sincere religious tourism, just as we might be if we visited a location that had key associations with our faith, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the most likely site of Jesus’ tomb.
But then you think a bit more. Did the disciples really expect Jesus to be as awestruck by the Temple as they were, so soon after he had cleared the moneychangers out in a profound act of religious vandalism? Had they not learned a lesson from that? Evidently not.
What are we to take, then, from Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, a prophecy which would come true just forty years later when Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion?
I think we should clear out one wrong conclusion. This does not give us permission to hate Jewish people, any more than the crucifixion does. If we start to argue that the destruction of the Temple was God’s judgement on the Jews for their part in the death of Jesus, then what are we to make of the many Christian church buildings that have been destroyed over the centuries? Should we automatically assume that all such actions are a sign of God’s displeasure?
And should we assume that Jesus’ prophecy gives us reason to be opposed to all religious buildings? Again, probably not. If a group of people gathers for worship, they will usually need a building. It is a moot point whether they need to own the building or whether they can borrow one, but you cannot avoid the need for buildings.
I think that rather than concentrate on what I might call ‘negative’ interpretations of this story, we need to seek positive interpretations. I don’t say that because I want everything to be nice and happy and to paper over cracks – you will see that positive interpretations carry a considerable challenge.
This story is about true worship. Let me tell you a story. When I arrived in my first appointment as a probationer minister, I was told that my main church had a catchphrase: ‘Flo won’t like it.’ And it was true. Flo never did like it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be. On one occasion when I had announced in advance that the annual Free Churches Good Friday service would include someone hammering nails into a cross – surely unexceptional for such an occasion – I was summoned to the farm where she lived, plied with tea, cake and copies of John Wesley’s Journal, and then asked me to rescind this terrible decision.
It transpired that Flo’s late husband had been the major financial contributor to the purchase of both the manse I lived in and the church building. Her whole life was about preserving his heritage. Flo never did like ‘it’. Her ‘temple’ had to be preserved along its original lines.
And this raises the question about who, what or where we truly worship. Devotion to a building is wrong. A temple is never an end in itself for worship. A temple is where heaven and earth meet. Supremely for Christians, Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, being both divine and human. Indeed, when it comes later to his trial, he will effectively claim to be the true temple when he says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’
In other words, the positive challenge from the beginning of this passage is to make sure that Jesus is the focus of our worship. To stress Jesus as the object of our worship probably sounds so obvious, so central and perhaps even so trite that you might wonder why I would even bother to emphasise it.
But the reality is, we can easily take our eyes off Jesus. We can worship religion rather than him. Like Flo, we can become obsessed more with the vehicles that help us worship than the One who is the worthy object of our devotion.
I say this, having heard recently that some members of the church at whose building Debbie and I were married fear that they will be closed down. I will feel desperately sad if that happens (which is not to comment on whether it will happen, or whether it is right or wrong). But it will be a reminder to me that my focus must be on Jesus, not a building.
And perhaps this is an important reminder for us all. Just as Jesus was warning his disciples that tumultuous and catastrophic times were coming upon the Jewish people, so we live in a time when it seems like the outlook for the Christian faith in our culture seems bleak. Just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, so we too see cherished religious institutions collapse and fail. Churches close and denominations even get close to being unviable. This is a critical time to remember that we are to concentrate on Jesus more than the organisations or traditions we dearly love. Might it even be that just as the Jerusalem Temple, with its elaborate sacrificial system and the opposition of its leaders to Jesus, became redundant, so some of our religious systems and structures are also no longer fit for purpose? Now more than ever is a time to make sure our first loyalty is to Jesus and not to some human construction.
But we find all these social convulsions troubling, distressing even. That leads to the second of two themes I want to share with you this morning. Jesus knew his disciples would be upset by the thought of wars and rumours of wars, and he had a word of hope for them. It wasn’t a sugar-coated word of hope, it was one set in the harsh realities that were coming. But hope it was, nevertheless.
That hope comes right at the end of our reading:
‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’ (Verse 8b)
Birth pangs. Last week a friend gave birth to a little girl. After a long labour she lovingly scolded a friend who had told her that giving birth was just like ‘doing a big poo’. Need I tell you the deluded friend was male?
Birth pangs are painful, intensely so. What a mother goes through in order to bring new life into the world is excruciating – and even that word seems too weak to describe the experience. But they bear the pain for the sake of the outcome.
By talking about birth pangs, Jesus tells his disciples that the forthcoming traumas, horrendous as they will be, will be the prelude to new life. To quote Tom Wright
‘The picture of birthpangs had been used for centuries by Jews as they reflected on the way in which, as they believed, their God was intending to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. Many writers from Jesus’ time whose works have come down to us spoke of the Jewish hope in this fashion. Since … Jesus believed that his kingdom-mission, his message, was the divinely appointed means of bringing this new world to birth, we shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes spoke of it in this way as well.’1
Despite the pain, God is doing something new. Despite the upheavals, God is at work. When you see the tribulations of the church in decline today, do not simply stop and blame our society for turning its back on Christianity, however much that is true. Go further in your thinking. Ponder the thought of why it is God might want to do away with the forms of religion we have had for many years. Could it be that he is judging us? Could it be that the things we cling onto instead of Jesus are the things God is making redundant?
But more than all that, do you dare think that the pain the church is undergoing is that of birth pangs? Could it be that God is bringing something new to birth? As the old ways of doing things falter and crumble, could God be inviting us to experience a death so that we might embrace a resurrection? Can I dare you to believe in the God of new beginnings? The God who says in Isaiah 43, ‘Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. Behold, I am doing a new thing’? The God who says in Revelation 21, ‘I am making all things new’?
Friends, is it not time to recognise the ways in which we have become too attached to our religious institutions and repudiate that as the false worship – yes, the idolatry that truly is? Is it not time to renew a radical commitment and devotion to Jesus as the true object of our desires?
And is it not time to trust God in the shaking of our times, believing him for another act of new creation?